Friday, October 12, 2012

Recalling Moderation

The ongoing recall at Canada’s XL Foods, Inc. inspired by E. coli O157:H7 continues to grow. As a result, many media outlets are giving the public the impression that this recall is due to a massive breakdown in the “food safety system.” This interpretation is a bogus hyped-up media frenzy inspired by minority politics and folks looking for a law suit. (1) Gosh, it feels good to be able to say what I feel! After 13 years in USDA, one of those years in a political appointment, it is still difficult to do. During my first week on the job as Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety (USDA), our agency implemented the largest meat recall in US history (>145 million pounds) due to evidence that Hallmark foods in Chino, CA had harvested downer cows without additional USDA inspection. I have some experience with a sense of “recall hysteria.”(2)

The true facts of a recall must be understood so that people are not afraid to eat! It is terrible when people get sick or die from preventable diseases. Certainly, it is troubling when everyday a new food company announces that they are recalling their product; for example, peanut butter or beef. It is worse when we have one of these “rolling recalls” where the bad news keeps coming. But the news does not always match the true public health impact. As of October 15, fifteen cases of illness and ZERO deaths have been associated with the XL Foods recall.(3) If companies screw up they should fix it, but that does not mean the “whole system” is broken.

These messy “rolling” recalls happen as investigations into the source of the illness uncover new information, particularly information about the “cause” of the recall and how long ago this “cause” started. Note that a recall does NOT mean that product is for sure contaminated. It only means “in an ‘abundance of caution’ there is a chance the product could be contaminated, therefore it is better to pull it off the shelf”. Sorry, I almost sounded like a government guy again.

The peanut butter recall is growing as companies check their records and find that they may have bought product from Sunland, Inc. or someone who sources from them. (4) Again, it does not mean the all peanut butter is contaminated, nor does it mean that Joey’s all natural PBJ sandwich from last week will be the end of him. (Joey is my dog, Joe-Joe, my grandson, and Joseph is my grandfather). On a practical note, it does mean that consumers should check their shelves and return recalled product. It means that we must constantly take ownership of our own food safety. We can keep eating, being thankful for another meal and a system that has the transparency to issue recalls when they needed, and enforce improvements when they are warranted.

(1)Murphy, D. 2012. Commentary: Playing the Blame Game.

(2)Food Safety and Inspection Service. California Firm Recalls Beef Products Derived From Non-Ambulatory Cattle Without The Benefit Of Proper Inspection

(3)Food Safety News. 2012. More illnesses in Canada Linked to Recalled Beef.

(4)Food Safety News. 2012. More Products with Sunland Ingredients Recalled.

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